Robert Johnston, 93, who operated the downtown Hollywood burlesque theater for nearly 50 years, died Jan. 2 in San Diego of complications from a stroke he had in October.
He was often called downtown’s “Mayor of F Street” because he frequently held court for his many friends at the F Street bar he owned, next to the theater.
Born March 22,1897, in Belfast, he came with his family to Canada as a child and lived in Calgary and Vancouver until he and his sister came to this country.
He became active in vaudeville, on stage as a singer and dancer and off as a manager, before coming to San Diego. In 1921, he took over the Liberty Theater, which had opened in 1914 as the Lyceum. At first a vaudeville house, it became a burlesque palace in 1925.
The Hollywood became one of the best-known stops on the stripper circuit and one of the last to close, lasting until 1970. Local lore said ecdysiast Lily St. Cyr began her career at the Hollywood. Others who appeared included Tempest Storm, Candy Barr and Texas Bobbi Roberts (a graduate of San Diego High School who appeared in the theater for almost 20 years).
In 1930, a female vaudeville star named Frances Myers, on her way to Panama, stopped at the Hollywood for a two-week stint. Instead, she stayed, married Johnston on Dec. 7,1930, and worked on stage until their daughter was born. Afterward she continued to choreograph shows.
New operators took over the Hollywood, changing its name and putting it to various uses. It wound up as a legit house with its original name, then was torn down – despite strong protests from local theater lovers – in 1983 to make way for the Horton Plaza shopping mall.
Johnston’s bar, the Sports Palace, also gave way to the plaza, but he took the name to a new downtown location until it too closed last year.
Last March 17, Johnston was honored as St. Patrick’s man of the year in San Diego’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
He owned race horses that ran regularly at the Del Mar, Santa Anita and Hollywood Park tracks and he managed fighters. He had held a box at the Del Mar Turf Club since its opening in 1937. A member of Al Bahr Shrine, he supported its philanthropies.
Survived by his wife, Frances; a daughter, DeeAnn; a grandson, Robert J. Johnston; and a sister, Joy Lassen.